"I'll never love anybody the way I love her."
Well, maybe. But I wasn't all that sure that either of the 20-year-olds sitting across from me had experienced enough living -- or loving -- to really know what they was talking about. They were going to get married, though, and I certainly wasn't going to try to convince either of them that the love they felt for each other wasn't a singularly unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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I also tried to prepare them for what I knew was inevitable.
"You know, six months, or six years from now, you're going to find yourself attracted, even if just a little bit, to someone else. How do you think you'll handle that?"
I actually wasn't being as hard on this couple as it might sound. I really do believe that as much as we love the one we're with, as wonderful as our relationship might be, our spouse is simply not the only person on the face of the earth we could fall in love with.
Sooner or later we all will come across someone else whom we suspect, or even know for sure, we could fall head over heels over if given half a chance.
A lot of this has to do with how and why we are attracted to each other. Falling in love and being in love involves three intertwined dynamics: chemistry, friendship and romance.
Don't ask me to explain it, but there is such a thing as chemistry. It involves skin texture and tone, body odor, eye color and brilliance, how we walk and talk, and a whole lot more. We may never understand it, but we sure know it when it's there. And such chemistry has a lot to do with both how and why a relationship begins and continues.
Friendship is a separate dynamic. It has to do more with what we have in common -- shared interests, activities and values; compatible temperaments; and so on. Friendship is "gender neutral" -- we can be (and hopefully are) friends with both men and women.
Ah, romance. It can be wonderful. And it can be awful. Sometimes at the same time. It involves a whole host of thoughts and feelings -- excitement, tenderness, single mindedness, longing, anticipation, loneliness, etc. ... and a variety of behaviors we use to express them.
In a really good relationship, all three -- chemistry, friendship, and romance -- are present. And it's likely that when they all are we both are thinking seriously about marriage. Good idea. Such relationships are hard to find.
But not impossible. And here's where it gets difficult. We are going to encounter more than one person in our life who offers us to some degree or the other a bit of chemistry, friendship or romance. In fact, I'll bet that if we are honest with ourselves we will become aware of dozens of persons in our lifetime that offer such potential.
Now, if I haven't lost you yet, let's talk about just how complicated all this makes getting married, or staying married.
1) First, consider what blend of chemistry, friendship and romance leads to our decision to get married. Now, usually what gets us in trouble is that experiencing one of these dynamics does not necessarily relate to experiencing the others. You can feel chemistry with, even become romantically involved with, someone whom you'd never be friends with. On the other hand, we can become close friends with, and even develop somewhat of a romantic relationship with, a person with whom there is little if any chemistry.
Unfortunately in our culture we tend to rely most on chemistry and romance to inform our decisions about marriage. Research suggests, however, that friendship has as much, if not more, to do with long term marital health.
But, then again, if we simply marry our best friend, the absence of chemistry and romance will leave us incredibly vulnerable to the next person who comes along who offers these dynamics.
2) Familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt, but it certainly can have a negative impact on how we see each other and our relationship. The better we know each other, the easier it is to become bored with each other.
And our relationship can easily settle into comfortable, but increasingly too familiar, patterns. Unless we take concrete steps to keep the spark alive, unless we continually build on our friendship, our marriage can be vulnerable to the any hint of chemistry, friendship, and romance that someone new and different offers.
3) Even if our marriage is grounded in a good blend of chemistry, friendship and romance, such a foundation has to stand the stress of years of living together. We will inevitably find things about our spouse and our relationship that aren't what we'd expected or hoped for. The distraction, conflict and disillusionment that results can slowly eat away at the special feelings which we started with.
Add in a few kids, job stress, in-laws and out-laws, school, remodeling the house, and whatever and it's not hard to see how easily life can undercut the love that brought us together. Again, another person who seems to offer love unencumbered by much of the above can be a real threat to our marriage.
4) Yet another factor has to do with our own individual growth and development. We will change (or at least I sure hope so). And it is not hard to imagine that over the course of decades we can grow apart almost as easily as we can grow together.
Here the friendship dynamic of our relationship is especially vulnerable. The chemistry may be there, even some of the romance, but we're somehow not really friends anymore. We may have an exciting marriage, just not a particularly friendly one.
As we get older, however, friendship can become more important than either of the other two dynamics of being in love. That's when a friend who also happens to offer a little chemistry becomes a real threat to our marriage.
5) A final complication. Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. We can marry someone we are deeply in love with, build a fulfilling marriage and life, successfully overcome all life's expected and unexpected challenges, even grow and develop together, and still come face to face with someone else with whom we experience that initial rush of chemistry, friendship, and romance that means we are starting to fall in love. There is even the possibility that we will begin to see this person as a better future life's partner than our current husband or wife. And we might even be right.
When this happens we have to struggle with such value-laden questions as the meaning of commitment, the importance of shared history, our responsibility to our children and extended family and friends, and the possibility that our new potential love interest would not be our last, but simply our next.
Falling in love can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But that's only if we consciously choose to make it so. Understanding the dynamics of being in love, working at staying in love throughout the years of our relationship, and reserving our attention for the person we're with, not the person we could be with, are all important.